November 2011

What Is A Koan?

The Question That Really Can Be Answered

What is a koan? Most people with an interest in Zen have heard of koans, but not everyone has a clear understanding of what they are. Most people think of them as being a type of “Zen riddle,” but most of the classic compilations of koan (such as the “Blue Cliff Record”) are anecdotes, not questions.


Some people think the koan is a type of nonsense question designed to shock the mind into enlightenment, but there are right answers and wrong answers to koan questions, so how can the questions be nonsense?


Other people think that since collections of “koan answers” have been published, earning your “Zen master diploma” should be as easy as memorizing all the answers- but trying that with a real Zen master is liable to get you whacked with a stick.


Japanese Minimalist Aesthetic

“Wabi-sabi” is a Japanese expression that can be roughly translated “cold loneliness” or “withered isolation.” Wabi-sabi is a uniquely Japanese concept of artistic beauty, and even though it doesn't have anything to do with Zen strictly speaking, it has a major influence on art forms traditionally associated with Zen such as the tea ceremony or rock gardening.

Zen Swordsman Tesshu

Samurai, Calligrapher, Zen Master


Yamaoka Tesshu was a great Zen layman, master calligrapher, swordsman and statesman of the Meiji Restoration era in Japanese history. Tesshu was a genius in several areas of life. He was considered one of the greatest swordsmen of his time, the headmaster of two branches of the Itto Ryu style and founder of the Muto Ryu style of swordsmanship.


He was also considered one of the top calligraphers of the time, and his calligraphy fetched so much money that Tesshu's many creditors often preferred to hold on to his IOUs rather than cash them in- the IOUs written by Tesshu's brush were actually worth more than what he owed them!